Five career priorities

There are five career priorities –

1. Location
2. Industry
3. Company
4. Role
5. Team/people

Every career choice we make comes back to how we solve for these. We can make career decisions easier for ourselves by keeping four things in mind.

First, we ought to know that it gets harder to change multiple priorities. If you are trying to change just a role or team within your company, that is likely among the easier things to do. It is harder to change companies, industries, locations. And, of course, it is harder to change two or three things at a time. That doesn’t mean it can’t be done. It is just very hard. Location can be particularly hard for those who weren’t born with American or European passports. And, for most people, graduate school tends to a way to enable such change.

Second, every time you make a move, it helps to create a stack rank of these priorities. What are you trying to achieve? And, at what cost? It is rare you are going to end up with the perfect combination. You have to know what you are willing to trade off. Also, I’ve noticed that when most folks make career decisions, they focus on points 1-4. That is natural. There is just one problem – the people we surround ourselves with have a massive impact on our daily well-being. So, beware ignoring the team/people priority.

Third, the first two priorities are the hardest to solve for. So, if we can find a way to resolve this or simply eliminate them, it’ll ease any transition. For example, if you are focused on one industry, you can now focus on four priorities instead of five.

Finally, the best way to think about career moves is to layer a longer term / directional perspective. Instead of attempting to change multiple priorities today, look to work on changing one or two at a time. For example, you can make a move across industries within the same role as a starting point. Then, attempt to change role and so on.

As a bonus point, it is easy to second guess your past career decisions when you try to make changes. It is easy to look around and feel “behind.” But, it is worth reminding ourselves that we’ve gotten here by doing the best we could with what we knew.

Now that we know better, we will do better.

Fix the lifestyle you want, then work backwards

Author and blogger Cal Newport recently sent the highlights from an old post of his on career advice. It is a goodie.


Fix the lifestyle you want. Then work backwards from there. 

The problem with career planning, I argued, is that most people focus on the wrong properties when making professional decisions. They either ask vague questions about the nature of the work — “is this my passion?”; “is this what I want to do with my life?” — or they sidestep this ambiguity by optimizing ego metrics — “what pays the most?”; “what would be most impressive to my aunt in Ohio?”

Neither of these strategies work well.

The problem with the first approach is that most knowledge sector jobs are essentially the same. Whether you work in the front office of a major league baseball team, an investment bank, or your own one-person company: you’re going to spend most days in front of a computer, sending emails, and attending meetings. No amount of self-reflection is likely to determine that one such option among many similar options is clearly your true passion.

The problem with only optimizing ego metrics, on the other hand, is that many prestigious jobs pay a lot of money in part because they’re so awful people would otherwise quit. The number of big city lawyers I know could fill a bus. The number of happy big city lawyers I know could fit comfortably in my Honda Fit.

Which brings me back to my advice.

The real goal in career planning is to build a life you enjoy. So instead of focusing on tangential factors that may or may not make your life better, why not cut straight to chase and ask: What do I want my life to be like and what sequence of career steps will best get me there?

If you crave a Musk/Jobs style, big-vision, manic drive to build something big lifestyle, then this should lead to a different set of decisions than if you instead crave a Feynman style  thinking big thoughts in scenic locations lifestyle. If you’re instead attracted to a Frugal Woods style retreat to a homestead in Vermont, then your choices should be even different still.

Notice, however, that issues like “passion” and “job match” don’t play a huge role in this scenario. The specifics of the work are less important than the impact of the work on your daily life.


I don’t agree with every piece (e.g. the similarity of knowledge sector jobs) but, I think this is very good advice because it suggests we just reverse the sequence of questions we normally ask. Instead of starting with – “what career do I want?” and then moving to “Given this career, what is the realistic life style?,” Cal suggests beginning with figuring out what kind of life you’d like to live.

It doesn’t make the task all that much easier, in my opinion, as the lifestyle question is pretty hard to answer.

But, at least we’re focused on a better question..

lifestyle, careerImage Source

Career and life lessons from a business class upgrade

I was upgraded to business class on Emirates Airlines last month for a 4 hour leg of a 17 hour journey. It was funny how I immediately found myself wishing I had been upgraded for the longer leg. Ha. Human nature. It had been a while since I traveled business on a good airline and what I observed had some interesting implications on thinking about careers and life.

To begin with, I perceived a change in behavior from the staff the moment I got my upgrade at the counter. I felt I was suddenly treated with more respect and felt special. Of course, the comforts were great – a full recline bed on which you can sleep comfortably and a table on which you can get work done without feeling squished. But, what struck me was the visible difference in the way I was treated. This disappeared the moment I stepped back into Economy for the longer leg.

The principle here is signaling. I was treated as someone with perceived higher value simply because of my accidental/serendipitous business class tag. It is powerful because we, as humans, are always categorizing people and things. And, signaling, one way or the other, determines which buckets we fall into.

So, when it comes to planning careers, my thought process and advice are really boring – work hard, get into the best school you can get into, then work hard and get good grades (or do something really cool in the risk-free zone that is school), then get into the best job you can get into, do very well and you’ll find yourself with more options over time. The reason for this boring advice is that it reduces downside. Yes, we love talking about entrepreneurs who made billions by taking crazy risks. That is largely media fueled nonsense. Most smart entrepreneurs are actually masterful de-riskers – they only take the next risk when they feel they’ve minimized chances of failures. And, as far as drop outs who made billions go, the most storied of the lot – Bill Gates, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, and Mark Zuckerberg – dropped out of Harvard and Stanford. I daresay they would have done fine even if things hadn’t worked out at Microsoft, Google and Facebook.

Fivethirtyeight had a sobering article titled “Rich Kids Stay Rich, Poor Kids Stay Poor” presenting results from a research study on how growing up in poverty affects kids. One of the charts in the article was –

career, wealth

Most charts told a similar story – folks who grew up in wealthy families remained wealthy as adults.The article underlines just how hard social mobility is. And, if these were the results in the US (the land of opportunity), I can only imagine what similar studies would unearth elsewhere.

My hypothesis is that the principle that underlies all of this is, again, signaling. Do well early and you reduce downside for the rest of your careers. Once you’ve reduced that downside, you are well placed to take risks to increase upside. That isn’t to say your chances are low otherwise. But, it is also no coincidence that you have an absurd number of risk takers in places like the Silicon Valley. The truth is that places like the Silicon Valley both place a premium on failure and encourage risk taking once you’ve had a stint at a successful tech firm. So, in some ways, you’re probably only increasing your career capital. Sure, you will always be able to point to many who “made it” without following this principle. But, I could say with a good degree of confidence that the many are a small proportion of the “many others” who fell by the wayside without a Fortune cover story.

The article and data also goes to show how fortunate you are if you won the genetic lottery and were born into the right family. If you are in those top percentiles, maybe this data ought to be a wake up call to stop complaining about all the things that go wrong and to use all that privilege you have to leave the world better than you found it.

What should I do if I’m really struggling at work and feel incredibly down because of it?

Someone (anonymous) prompted me to answer a question on Quora. I thought I’d share the question and my response below. The tough part about such a question is that no one can answer it. The best (I believe) you can do is provide a frame that will hopefully help. The response has many of elements I write about here on this blog and all of what is recommended has been tried and tested. So, here’s hoping this helps the person who asked the question and anyone else who might be having a difficult time.


What should I do if I’m really struggling at work and feel incredibly down because of it?

I changed job about a year ago, and really haven’t been doing well in my new job, definitely not as well as I did in my old. Some things are solvable, or at least I can see how to solve them, e.g. project management. However, my job is very technical and requires a deep understanding of material that is complex. I cannot seem to get my head around it, my learning on it is very slow. For that I just do not know what to do, and feel hopeless. It is strange for me because my technical grasp in my old job was good, I don’t know why I am struggling so much here. I feel so demotivated and I do not know who to talk to, as people who do not work in the industry do not understand. I really want some constructive feedback and something concrete to work on, but my colleagues and management say “understanding technical issues should be a given” which makes me wish I could just quit and do something else, although I can’t actually afford to do that financially.


 

Dear friend,

Congratulations! This is an opportunity that can make you and really change your life.

What you describe is the essence of the toughest struggle we face as humans – it is part external, part internal and part existential. It is when the resistance seems to just overpower you and suddenly everything that you seem to touch seems to have failure written all over it. There is nothing harder. I have experienced losing both my father and uncle between ages 9 and 11 and then facing many difficulties as a consequence of that. And, yet, when I look back at a time when I went through something like this, I found death and it’s consequences easier to deal with. This sort of experience will teach you to be human and, in many ways, I think it’s those that learn to be human are those that learn how to be happy.

The toughest part about this sort of situation is that it comes with a seeming lack of options. You seem stuck in an endless spiral and rebuilding your confidence and your sense of self feel like a lot of hard work.

So, given the situation, it is great that you are asking the question. It is sometimes hard to step out of ourselves when we are having tough times. And, this is definitely a good first step. Well done.

Here’s how I would approach it.

Step 1. Examine your options and make a conscious decision.

It seems to me that there are 4 options –
1. Quit now (which you can’t seem to afford financially)
2. Search for a job now
3. Stay and continue status quo
4. Stay and change things

Out of these 4 options, I think searching for a job now could be an escape. However, given your current mental state, it is unlikely that is going to be fruitful. Since option 3 is not one I would recommend, let’s focus on the decision you have in front of you – To fix it or not to  try.

If you decide to fix it, then we proceed to step 2.

Step 2. Rebuild with a 1 month short term plan.

Give yourself a clear short term process goal, e.g., “I’m going to work hard on “being happy” and I’m going to measure my efforts on it.”

This will take 3 steps – 

1. Get the basics – eating, sleeping, exercising, and reading – right. Eat healthy food every 4 hours, kill alcohol and cigarettes for a month, sleep 8 hours every day, exercise 6 days a week (aerobic for 20 minutes) and spend 30 mins every day reading/listening to a book (perhaps start with your commute). When you start,  start with “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor E Frankl.

Create a simple tracker and measure yourself on these.

2. Journal your daily learnings. You are learning something every day. Reflect on it and write about it. Every challenge is learning and every day, we get better at dealing with them.

3. Recharge emotionally – via good times and volunteering. Spend at least a day a week with loved ones and get over yourself when you do (no moping / complaining). And, make 3 hours to volunteer at a place with underprivileged kids.

Notes
– This may not immediately change anything. You’re in a spiral, and as you face the inevitable frustration once you start trying, you’ll probably spiral further down. Allow yourself to hit rock bottom. It’s a liberating place to be when you realize you can’t sink any lower.
– Don’t take it personally – great footballing stars have gone on to become massive failures when they switched clubs. It isn’t just about you – it is also about the environment.
– As you might have gathered, this isn’t about the technical skills. Our first step is to work on your confidence and motivation. • Be willing to iterate and change approaches. This will help you with stage 1 – getting started and building your confidence. You’ll need to keep tailoring your approach as  some things will work and some won’t. That’s okay. It’s a long way up and there is no easy way out of it.

And, this is not going to be easy or quick. You will feel stuck and annoyed many many times as you work your way through the process. If that happens, welcome to the club. This is how we get made.

PS: I’d love to help beyond this Quora thread. If this thought process helps, that’s great. Even if it doesn’t, please feel free to write me on rohan@rohanrajiv.com if I can be of help in thinking through this. Good luck and good skill!

25 things I’ve learnt from 4 years of work

As I transition to being a student again, I thought I’d write down 25 things I’ve learnt. It started as a list of 7 but, somehow, there seemed to be many more that were just as important. Brevity is clearly not a strength as yet.

1. You are better off focusing on your “learn-rate” and skills than rewards that look good. Your learn-rate is the intensity with which you learn – focus hard on it. Seek learnings from all sources – teammates, bosses, peers, subordinates, books, movies – just be a learning machine and forget about rewards. In fact, be actively wary of jobs that give you too much of what’s considered good too early.

2. Being so good you can’t be ignored is one part. It isn’t enough – Learning to market your work is just as important.

3. The train you are on matters a lot more than how smart you are. Luck matters. I had a unique opportunity in the last 2 years that enabled me to work across 5 countries in 3 continents. Sure, I didn’t mess the first one up but I’d be a fool if I attributed it to my skill. Being at the right place at the right time helps a lot. And, being skilled, positive and open increases your odds of doing that. Allow luck to find you. But, don’t rely on it.

4. You don’t get what you deserve. You get what you ask for and what you negotiate. A PS here – you get the best possible results when you find others to champion your cause and negotiate on your behalf.

5. Build a great board of directors and do it deliberately. You are the CEO of Me, Inc. Execute well and seek counsel over long term strategy. A big part of learning is learning from the experience of those wiser than you and spending time with a great Board can vastly improve your learn-rate.

6. Last minute work will kill you in the long run. Avoid at all costs.

7. A well scoped project has no need for long hours of work and definitely no need for weekends. Your best 0 error work is done when you are working comfortably with 100% focus. Remember – we only have 3-5 super productive hours in a day. Focus on getting the most out of them – the rest is gravy.

8. Get your shit together. Be organized and responsive. That doesn’t mean checking email at 2 in the morning. It means banishing procrastination, being orderly and being responsible. It is a way of doing things.

9. Things have a way of working themselves out if you put in the work. The law of unattraction works here. Stay calm and let the universe do its work. (This is bloody hard)

10. Drive your own review and feedback process. Work hard on not allowing weaknesses to get in the way by actively working on them, one at a time (e.g. a weakness every 6 months/year). Pay a lot of attention to your strengths. Your weaknesses are a way of reducing unforced errors and your strengths are how you hit your winners. When you are a beginner, avoiding unforced errors matters most. But, as you get better, your winners count for more.

11. You can only push so much. After a point, it becomes counter productive.

12. Take some time to understand human nature. Working with and moving people is where great change is made. You may not like all you see but you can definitely learn to understand and accept it. Understanding what drives people is always useful.

13. Understanding people is only possible if you take the time to understand yourself. Self awareness is a learned trait and it boosts our ability to deal with that other large beast – insecurity.

14. Work on a project outside work. At the very least, have a hobby that you care about. Use your weekends well. Good weekends drive good weeks. That said, don’t take this to an extreme. Let your hair loose and do an all nighter that messes with your sleep patterns often.

15. Actively build and maintain a support system of people not connected to work. I call this group framily – or close friends and family. Keep them engaged in your life by working on small projects with them, e.g. by volunteering together.

16. Sleep 8 hours, eat breakfast, and exercise nearly everyday. A healthy mind lives in a healthy body.

17. Book at least 1 good vacation and 1 great vacation during the year. It does wonders to your productivity.

18. Read. A lot. This is the single biggest driver of your learn-rate. If  you’re wondering how to make time, here are 3 ideas. 1. Cut down your TV time 2. Try audio books while at the gym 3. Use every minute of your commute

19. Mistakes are an inevitability. Don’t worry about the mistake – worry about the process that led to the mistake and focus on a creative, constructive and corrective response. I repeat that every time I make a mistake – focus on a creative, constructive and corrective response.

20. Every experience is what you make of it.

21. Your reputation is everything. Guard it carefully. If you don’t create and manage what you are known for (i.e. your brand), someone else will.

22. Try to never be guilty of a bad attitude. This is hard, especially if you are stuck in frustrating circumstances, but important.

23. Manage people the way you’d like to be managed and not on how some bad manager managed you. Don’t be a jerk.

24. Make the effort to understand the politics. Politics is inevitable if there are more than 3 people in a room. Avoid politicking if you can, however. Keep the game as clean and as meritocratic as possible. (A general rule when it comes to politics – if you’re unable to identify the sucker at the table, it is probably you.)

25. What got you here won’t get you there. This is the simplest and most important principle. If you’ve been doing well so far, the bar will soon be raised and you will have to use your accumulated knowledge and wisdom to figure out the next curve and reinvent yourself. Drive the change actively… what got you here won’t get you there.